Back to PCFFA Home Page
Back to PCFFA Fishermen's News Archive
The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea levels, shifts in species ranges, and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.
-- From the Statement on Global Climate Change Released 2/18/07 by the
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
When last we wrote in this column on global climate change and the threats it represents to the fishing industry in January, 1998 (see Why Global Warming Matters, at: www.pcffa.org/fn-jan98.htm), there was far less scientific consensus supporting this theory than today, and far more controversy over whether global warming was, in fact, happening -- and if so, whether humans were responsible.
Since 1998, however, many billions of dollars have been spent on multi-national worldwide research projects to find out what, if any, climatic changes were actually occurring, including in all of the worlds oceans. As a result, from many independent sources, there has been mounting and unmistakable physical evidence that the world is indeed getting warmer. The signs include disappearing glaciers, ever shrinking snow packs, earlier seasonal warming, rapidly melting ice shelves in Greenland and Antarctica, and the shrinking of the Arctic ice cap in ways that have not been seen on Earth in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. The ocean itself has gotten noticeably warmer down to a depth of 3,000 meters, has grown more acidic, and average sea levels are slowly but gradually rising all around the world. These are now observed facts.
Today, the often-contentious scientific and policy debate over whether global climate change is in fact occurring -- and if so, whether we ought to be doing something to prevent it -- has effectively ended. Only a handful of mostly industry-funded professional climate change skeptics still exist, leftovers from past campaigns by the gas, oil and auto industries (led by ExxonMobil) to avoid additional regulation. The legitimate scientific debate today is over how bad global warming is likely to get and where it will hit hardest, not whether it exists at all.
The debate has also ended largely as a result of two major reports one purely scientific, the other purely economic released within the last few months.
Better Science: On the scientific front, this February 5th the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is jointly organized by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), issued its Fourth Assessment Report, summarizing six years of new evidence since its Third Assessment in 2001. The IPCC is composed of thousands of the worlds top climate scientists and meteorologists, many of whom contributed to the Report.
In its Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC concluded not only that the scientific evidence of global climate change is now overwhelming, but that there is now a very high level of confidence (i.e., between a 90% and 99% certainty) that human industrial development (rather than any natural variation) is the primary cause of this worldwide warming trend.
In its Summary for Policymakers on the Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC noted that the atmospheric abundance of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) now far exceeds pre-industrial levels as determined from several sources, including ice cores going back 650,000 years. The IPCC also concluded that the observed global increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide are primarily due to fossil fuel uses and land-use changes, while those of methane and nitrous oxide are primarily due to expanding agriculture. The global concentration of carbon dioxide has increased from a pre-industrial level in year 1750 from about 280 parts per million (ppm) to 379 ppm in 2005.
At the current rate or increase, the Earths atmospheric carbon dioxide will double by the end of the 21st Century. However, over the last 10 years (1995-2005) that carbon dioxide level has increased much faster than ever before, now increasing at a rate of 1.9 ppm/year. As parts of the Third World continue their march toward their own industrial revolutions, particularly China, the rate of increase in worldwide atmospheric carbon dioxide is itself expected to increase, so in the normal course of events we may reach a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide far earlier than projected. At Chinas current rate of industrial growth, that country is expected to surpass the United States as the worlds single largest producer of atmospheric carbon dioxide within the next decade.
The IPCC report also noted that: Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level. Accompanying the buildup of greenhouse gases has been a worldwide increase in average temperatures. Eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the 12 warmest years on meteorological record (which began in 1850). Furthermore, direct temperature observations show that not only is the world getting warmer on average, but that the rate of warming is also now increasing. All these observations are consistent with global warming projections.
There are now several independently developed climate models that can predict the temperature consequences of continued rising carbon dioxide levels, and all were carefully considered and used by the IPCC. Remarkably, all of them predict major rises in future global average temperatures as carbon dioxide levels increase. If the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide double, the best IPCC projections now say that this will lead to average surface temperature increases of between 2.0 to 4.5 degrees C. (about 3.6 to 8.1 degrees F.) though increases higher than 4.5 degrees C. cannot be excluded.
The only serious scientific debate now is over how much and how quickly these temperatures will rise, and what that will mean on the ground -- and this largely depends on how much more greenhouse gases are spewed into the atmosphere over what period of time. For the next two decades, a warming of about 0.2 degrees C. per decade is projected for nearly every likely emissions scenario.
Also, because there is already so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the IPCC says it is already too late to prevent significant future temperature rises: even if greenhouse gas emissions could be capped, through great effort, at year 2,000 levels, worldwide temperatures are still projected to increase by at least 0.1 C. per decade.
New Economics: The other major event that set the stage for new thinking on global warming occurred in England, with the release in October of 2006 of a major independent economics review, commissioned by Great Britains Chancellor of the Exchequer, of the likely global economic costs of halting global warming versus the economic costs of doing nothing to prevent it. The Stern Review on The Economics of Global Warming was authored by the eminent Sir Nicholas Stern, who among other outstanding credentials is a former Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President of the World Bank, now an economics consultant to the British government and Second Permanent Secretary at the British Treasury.
Among other things, the Stern Review found that failure to address the problems of global warming would mean that our actions over the coming few decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th Century. He summarized his findings in a chart available at: www.pcffa.org/SternReviewSlide2.pdf.
Sir Nicholas Stern also concluded that the cost of preventing this sort of economic disaster would be less than 1% of global gross domestic product provided actions to prevent global warming and blunt its worst impacts are taken soon. Any serious delay, however, would greatly increase the costs of prevention as well as the risk of unavoidable damage to world economies. Without control actions, according to his analysis, up to 200 million people could become refuges from environmental disasters caused by droughts or floods by the end of this century, and potentially many more. At higher temperature levels (4 to 5 degrees C.), by year 2100 many major cities would be threatened with inundation, including London (with much of England), New York City and Washington, DC.
Great Britain, at least, is now paying close attention to this problem as a matter of future economic survival. Prime Minister Tony Blair, citing the Stern Review, noted that the geopolitical and economic consequences for the planet of climate inaction were literally disastrous. This disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime, Blair said. Investment now will pay us back many times in the future, not just environmentally but economically as well. For every pound invested now we can save five pounds, or possibly more, by acting now. This is a very hopeful message that the fishing industry should also take to heart.
In a world increasingly beset by global climate change, ocean-based food systems, which already support nearly a billion people, will become even more important as a renewable human food source. This is especially true since droughts (with accompanying famines) are expected to become more common in the future. Even a 1.0 degree C. (1.8 degrees F.) temperature difference can make all the difference between abundant harvests and drought in many of the worlds most important agricultural regions. Seafoods may have to make up much of these food losses.
However, the IPCC also found, based on observations since 1961, that the average temperature of the global ocean has already increased significantly at depths of at least 3,000 meters. The ocean has been absorbing more than 80% of the heat added to the climate system, causing the volume of oceans to expand a fact that all by itself is already causing significant sea level rises.
The oceans also absorb about 50% of all the additional atmospheric carbon, turning them gradually more acidic. Ocean acidification, combined with warmer ocean temperatures, is already altering the delicate ecological balance that supports major coral reefs, causing accelerating coral bleaching and the depletion of habitat for many coral-dependent species.
According to IPCC projections, here are some of the likely or highly likely other impacts of global warming the world will have to face over the next several decades.
Disruptions of Ocean Heat Exchange Systems: One of the phenomena documented in recent years and traced to global warming are changes in the salinity of the northern and southern oceans. Mid- and high-latitude waters such as the north Atlantic are receiving ever more fresh water as Greenlands glaciers continue to melt at accelerating rates, and as larger and larger parts of the Arctic icecaps thin or disappear entirely during parts of each summer. Additional water releases are occurring in Antarctica, though so far this melting has been much slower. Melting ice releases enormous amounts of previously stored fresh water into the oceans, changing salinity levels and shifting currents.
Also, as tropical oceans increasingly heat up they evaporate more water into the atmosphere, increasing rainfall in higher latitudes and further freshening those waters, while increasing the salinity of the seas in tropical regions.
Deep ocean currents run from the tropics to the poles and back again, moving and exchanging enormous amounts of heat and controlling much of the Earths climate, not to mention the distribution in the ocean of many temperature-sensitive marine species. That ocean heat-pump, however, depends on a fine balance between fresher and more saline waters (which have different densities). There is increasing evidence that this balance is being disrupted globally by the melting of ice in polar regions, and that these deep ocean currents which regulate the climates of all continents are now slowing down.
What this may all ultimately mean is unknown. If this ocean heat conveyor belt slowing down continues, it may mean widespread climate disruptions on land far more quickly than previously anticipated, including an increasing frequency and severity of major droughts in some areas and more extreme weather and flooding in others. It may also mean major temperature shifts in ocean ecosystems that will disrupt the migratory routes and habitat of many marine species.
More Frequent Marine Ecological Collapses: Temperatures in most parts of the ocean never vary more than degree or two. Many marine ecosystems depend on this temperature stability, and evolved with it over millions of years. Abrupt changes in temperature of even a couple of degrees can be devastating to these systems.
Tropical coral reefs, for instance, may die off completely with temperature changes of more than a single degree Centigrade, and many thousands of species depend upon tropical coral reefs for their existence. Yet tropical coral reefs everywhere have been dying off in recent years, with ocean temperature shifts in part to blame.
As average temperatures in the oceans increase over the next few decades, we can expect even more coral bleaching, and potentially the collapse and rearrangement of several important marine ecosystems. At the current rate of bleaching, within 20 years most of the coral reefs of the world will have died.
Since marine ecosystems are inter-related in many complex and currently unknown ways, there may also be unexpected changes in habitat or migratory ranges for good or bad of harvestable food fish that would greatly affect existing ocean fisheries. Cold-water fish will find their suitable habitats decreased and thus become much less abundant, and competing warm-water fish may expand their ranges well into areas now fished for cold-water species.
Ocean temperatures do change dynamically around certain stable means, so ocean ecosystems have incorporated within them some flexibility to respond to normal temperature changes. For instance, El Niño events result when tropical ocean temperatures increase ocean water temperatures above averages, shifting warm-water currents northward and changing some fish migration patterns. These are normal events, and fish stocks generally recover in other more normal (non-El Niño) seasons.
However, El Niño-like ocean conditions are likely to increase in both frequency and severity over the next several decades and there is evidence that this is already happening. Problems for fragile marine ecosystems will come when such now extreme events become so frequent and so severe that the mean around which such changes take place itself shifts upward on a permanent basis, and stocks never have time to fully recover.
Serious Problems For Salmon In California And The Northwest: Among the stocks likely to be hardest hit by global climate change will be west coast anadromous salmon runs. As rainfall patterns shift, the Northern California and Northwest particularly are predicted to experience more serious and more frequent droughts as well as a net decrease in water stored in the form of winter snow packs. In fact, this trend is already well advanced in many places.
This means there will be less summer water for salmon streams, and more environmental stresses on salmon habitat that has already been damaged or compromised by other human development, and thus lower over salmon survival rates. This impact is in addition to what may become increasingly hostile hot-water ocean conditions for cold-water salmon.
We are already seeing these effects in the California Central Valley and in the Klamath Basin. Water volumes and winter snow packs in both places in recent years have been well below the 100-year averages. Competition over increasingly limited water supplies will only get worse. This problem is greatly exacerbated by increasing water diversions for human uses, such as irrigation and urban development, with many river ecosystems important for salmon production already stretched to the breaking point.
Increased Fishery Management Uncertainties: Stresses on and changes in marine ecosystems in response to both changes in deep ocean currents, salinity, average ocean temperatures and acidity balances likely mean that future ocean ecosystems may well not much resemble those of the past.
All fisheries management, including all the models used in that management, are based on applying experiences from the past. What happens, however, when lessons we have learned in the past about how fish migrate in the oceans or the habitats that they need to survive are no longer relevant? What happens when future fish population projections can no longer be accurately predicted from the past?
Fishery management will have to live with, and adapt to, much higher levels of uncertainty if ocean conditions are changing as all the evidence suggests in ways that cannot easily be predicted.
Greater Frequency And Severity Of Major Storms: Sudden storms at sea are the fishermens bane, and can be fatal for the less experienced, ill-prepared or just plain unlucky.
Recent studies of hurricane incidence and severity demonstrate, however, that as average ocean temperatures have increased, so too have the severity and number of hurricanes. Experts tell us that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which nearly destroyed New Orleans and large parts of Louisiana in 2005, were perhaps a whole hurricane-class more ferocious because of unusual ocean warming in the Caribbean at the time and place where they were spawned.
An increase in frequency and severity of coastal storms is of concern not only to fishermen, but to the ports they call their home.
Higher Sea Levels, Coastal Erosion And Saltwater Intrusions: Finally, one of the most important consequences of increased worldwide average temperatures is an increase in average sea levels worldwide.
Sea levels are rising because of two factors: (1) warm water expands, so as the oceans get warmer they take up move volume, raising sea levels, and; (2) as polar ice and glaciers melt, they add to the level of the oceans.
This first effect is already taking its toll on some low-lying Pacific island nations, some of which may disappear entirely over the next few decades, making their inhabitants the first wave of global warming refugees.
It may take several decades yet before ice cap melting is a major factor in rising sea levels. However, the IPCC Report notes that temperature increases in the Arctic have been almost twice the global average rate in the past 100 years, and the ice caps of Greenland are indeed melting at far faster rates than previously predicted.
The vast majority of the worlds fresh water is locked up in the ice caps and glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica. If indeed the next few decades bring global average temperature increases of 3 to 5 degrees C. higher than today, the last time that happened was 125,000 years ago (due to changes in the Earths orbit), and at that time the melting of ice caps left sea levels between 4 to 6 meters higher than they are today. It is possible, if greenhouse gases are not checked, that we may see such sea levels again by 2100, with serious coastal flooding worldwide beginning by 2050.
Yet even sea level rises of a fraction of that scary figure would increase salt water intrusions into important coastal freshwater wetland nursery areas for shrimp and many other species, limiting those populations. It would also greatly accelerate beach erosion over most of the worlds coastlines, would inundate some densely populated coastal areas and many inhabited islands, and could cause severe damage to unprepared coastal fishing ports and fishing industry infrastructure in many countries.
Everyone talks about the weather, commented Mark Twain, but nobody ever does anything about it. The same seems to be true of global climate change. Fortunately, there are many simple things that can be done to prepare for, and most important to adapt to, coming global climate change. A time scale of 50 years is very short by geological standards but very long by human planning and building standards.
Some of the many actions that the fishing industry and fishing-dependent coastal communities can take now to offset (and hopefully eliminate) most of the adverse economic impacts such projected climate changes would mean are set forth below for consideration by policy-makers and coastal communities.
Protect Ocean Ecosystems, Now More Than Ever: Aggressive policies to assure healthy ocean ecosystems are needed most when the oceans are under stress. Now more than ever, protections for the health and integrity of marine ecosystems are essential. Fishermens groups like PCFFA have more at stake than anyone, and have led the charge in protecting ocean ecosystems for decades. Fishing industry advocacy to protect the resources we depend upon is needed now more than ever.
Fishing certainly has an impact on ecosystems, and so all the traditional tools now used to minimize that impact and to assure the long-term sustainability of harvests should continue to be perfected and applied diligently in all fishing countries, as well as new tools developed and tested. The more diverse, dispersed and redundant an ecosystem is in other words, the healthier it is -- the better it is able to adapt to change. The same could be said for human societies.
This means additional investments not only in better fishery management but in basic fisheries research and monitoring. All too often in the past, basic fishery management research and monitoring has been a low priority and poorly funded, even in the United States. Huge blunders have been made in managing stocks, as for instance in the west coast groundfish fishery, simply because of lack of basic information on the sustainable yield. These blunders have led to major closures and much suffering by fishing-dependent communities. All could have been prevented with better information.
Protecting ocean fish stocks also means addressing all the known impacts on ocean ecosystems, including onshore pollution that washes into the oceans and creates gigantic dead zones. It also means limiting offshore oil development and aquaculture to areas and methods that will not jeopardize the health of the marine environment nor deplete wild fish populations.
Protecting estuarine, delta and salt-water march habitat is also critical for the protection of many other harvested marine species, many of which depend for some part of their lifecycle on these fragile near-shore environments.
Especially important will be inland protections for salmon instream water supplies and other habitat. Salmon are vulnerable not only to all the problems in the ocean but all the problems created by climate shifts on land as well. Many salmon runs have already gone extinct and many others have been seriously damaged as riverine habitat and water are increasingly developed in ways that are environmentally destructive. All the many efforts to protect and restore key salmon river systems are critical to preserving these runs into the future especially as that future may be very much more uncertain as compared to the past.
The Precautionary Principle should also apply throughout all ocean policy decisions. Now is not the time to add yet more stresses on marine ecosystems. We have written about the Precautionary Principle in the past (see FN June 2002, The Precautionary Principle: Making It Work for Fish and Fishermen, at: www.pcffa.org/fn-jun00.htm), and it is now often applied to managing fishing. However, it is rarely or never applied to all the many other non-fishing impacts on the ocean that can hurt our industry far more profoundly. It should not be up to us to prove that offshore oil development or commercial ocean aquaculture is unsafe it should be up to the agencies to show beyond any reasonable doubt that these activities are safe, and that they will not adversely affect our fisheries. When they do jeopardize those fisheries, these activities should cease.
Start Planning For the Future Today: Humans, particularly most of our political leaders, are not noted for their long-term thinking. Thus we do not adapt well as a culture to a slow crisis that creeps up on us slowly over decades, until the impact is immediate. It is safe to say, however, that the impacts of global climate change are now upon us and, unless addressed and corrected, will only get worse perhaps much worse.
Every nation, state, province and city should be taking a hard look at these issues and planning how to respond over the next 50 years. This can be done on the local level thorough zoning and urban planning laws.
In coast communities, for instance, additional beach erosion, loss of wetlands, more violent storms and over the longer term higher average sea level rises should be planned for, and fishing port infrastructure should be adapted over time to what coastal conditions are likely to be 50 years or more in the future. This is, in fact, what local planning commissions are supposed to do.
In some cases this may mean relocation (over time) of essential port facilities to higher or more sheltered ground. It may also mean building moratoriums on further coastal development in areas at higher risk. Revisions in federal flood and hurricane insurance programs, for instance, are moving us in this direction, and this is all to the good. It is far more economical to plan for such changes over a 50-year period than to be forced to rebuild a destroyed facility after an emergency that could have been prevented.
Improve Fisheries Management With Real-Time Data: A great deal of fishery management is controlled by obsolete or old data, which is much like driving a car by looking only in the rear view mirror. We need faster and more responsive management, which means basing management on real-time data as much as possible. This also means investing in getting the best and most current fisheries data and stock assessments available.
Unfortunately, ocean ecosystems may be changing in ways that are unexpected and often difficult to predict. Migratory stocks will respond to climate changes by seeking food and supportive habitat in places they would not have done in the past. Yet ocean zoning (a frequent tool of fishery managers) always assumes that the future will be much like the past. When this is no longer true, management models can take many years to adapt unless the data used to manage these fisheries is current and accurate, and unless managers have the power adapt quickly.
Having better stock and migration data will also help us target abundant stocks and better protect those for which rebuilding is needed and in general lead to better and more sustainable management as well as better protection of marine ecosystems. In other words, this is something we should insist that the management agencies do anyway. It is all the better that doing so will help us solve some of these other pressing problems.
Increase Fishery Management Flexibility And Response Time: When the future looks less and less like the past, there is a greater need for more flexible fishery management to quickly respond to changing conditions. Unfortunately, the tendency of fishery management today is less institutional flexibility, not more. Ocean zoning, fishing quotas, barriers against interstate sales, and limited entry systems may have to adapt to changing conditions quickly or risk becoming irrelevant. The old methods of fishery management may not serve us anymore when the species we are told to harvest is no longer where we are told to go.
To meet increasingly variable ocean conditions, true adaptive management will have to become a way of life if fishery management is to continue to be viable. This means we will also have to work up faster ways for fisheries managers to make decisions as well as better ways for them to communicate last-minute changes to the fleet.
Better At-Sea Storm Warnings: One of the things we are already seeing worldwide are more frequent, faster growing and more violent at-sea storms such as hurricanes. The west coast is not immune to these problems by any means.
Yet under the current Administration in Washington, DC, federal investments in weather observation stations and weather early warning systems are being systematically defunded. This puts hard-working fishermen at risk of being caught by storms at sea.
With a likely increase in both frequency and severity of storms, and of extreme weather events generally, it is in the best interest of the nation as well as of coastal communities to have as good an early warning system for such extreme weather events as possible. More investment in these types of systems, including more satellite tracking of storms, is essential, and will save both lives and property.
Support All Efforts To Reduce Greenhouse Gases: Scientists tell us that it is already too late to prevent all global climate change, but there are ways to limit the damage and try to reverse these warming trends over time. The best way to prevent the more serious problems (and highest temperatures) from occurring is to limit greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane by all available means.
In some instances this means changes (often modest ones) in existing technologies, such as increasing engine fuel efficiency. These sorts of changes are not only good for the economy but also good for the consumer. Other changes may require more effort, including necessary changes in existing policy strategies.
The Bush Administration has been far behind the rest of the world, and indeed the rest of the United States, in responding to this problem. The states of California, Oregon and Washington are already taking steps of their own, as is nearly every other country in the world other than the U.S. government, to reduce the production of greenhouse gases. We should support all those efforts.
Clean Air Act, non-polluting alternative energy development and engine fuel efficiency struggles may not seem like political fights the fishing industry has a stake in. However, the impact of global warming will fall very hard on our industry and our coastal ports unless greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control and then greatly reduced. This makes those policy fights important to our industry.
There is much cause of optimism. One hopeful note in the Stern Review is that small infrastructure investments now, many of them making good economic sense in themselves, will help prevent huge economic losses in the future as climate changes in unknown ways.
The Stern Review estimated that very small investments in prevention of global climate change-linked problems today (less than 1% of the gross world domestic product) would assure our economic future well into a future century. Waiting any longer to address these problems, however, gets increasingly expensive and the risks of failure get far larger. It is always far cheaper to prevent a disaster from happening than to clean one up after it occurs.
Global climate change is a serious and looming problem, make no mistake, but my belief is that we should look at the whole issue as a creative challenge rather than cause for despair. There is, in fact, much that we can do about this issue, both locally and globally, and solutions will come much easier with appropriate investments now rather than later.
Here in the U.S. we have most of the means to tackle this problem what we lack most (particularly on the federal level) is the political will. Yet thanks to the sea change of these two major reports, federal denial and delay is now finally changing to action.
Addressing the issue of global warming is also a very good reason to improve what we are already doing now to make sure our ocean ecosystems and the fisheries they support are sustainably managed far into the future. A thoughtful and methodical approach to this issue like any problem will assure the ecological as well as the economic future of our industry through the coming climate change storms.
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens Associations (PCFFA) is the west coasts largest trade association of commercial fishing families. Glen Spain currently serves as PCFFAs Northwest Regional Director, and the Program Director for the Institute for Fisheries Resources, PCFFA's research and marine resources protection affiliate. PCFFA can be reached at its Southwest Office at PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370, (415)561-5080, and at its Northwest Office at PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370, (541)689-2000 or by email to: email@example.com. PCFFAs Internet Home Page is at: www.pcffa.org.
FOR MORE INFORMATION SEE:
Back to PCFFA Home Page
Back to PCFFA Fishermen's News Archive